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Enoch Pratt Free Library's Telephone Reference Service

Sam Holden
One woman used to call in and ask, \"If I was hit by a tractor-trailer truck and dragged 20 miles, would I survive?\"

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 11/28/2007

Seven days a week, from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library are working "The Wheel"-a five-platter lazy Susan of almanacs, encyclopedias, and other reference books containing the answers that callers to the Pratt's Telephone Reference Service desperately need. Since its inception in 1967, the line has answered more than 6 million requests for information, from the mundane (lottery tickets, misspelled words) to the bizarre. City Paper caught up with five librarians-Marcia Dysart, Susan Pluhar, Herbert Rogers (pictured, with Eleanor Hartmann), Bill Littman, and Joyce Worsley-who are waiting to take your call.

City Paper: OK, I've got to start off with what everybody's itching to know: What's the strangest question you've received?

Joyce Worsley: I had one the other week that was very peculiar, I'm still trying to figure it out. A woman called and wanted to know how to get rid of fruit flies. So I got out my little pest-control book and I read her this long detailed thing about how to get rid of these fruit flies, which is basically you get rid of organic material, blah blah blah. So after I read her all this stuff she says to me, "Well, I gave them mashed potatoes, and they liked it for a day or two, and then they stopped liking it. Then I tried tomato sauce, and they liked that for a day, and then they didn't like that anymore." And, you know, I'm a fool, so I said, "Why are you feeding them?" And she said she wanted to catch them.

Marcia Dysart: Oh, like for a science project?

JW: No, she was putting the stuff out as bait and she had this jar, and she was [makes shooing motions] trying to catch them in the jar. She said, "Right now, there's millions of them." No kidding! You're feeding them mashed potatoes! (laughs) I cannot tell a lie, I switched her to [the Business, Science, and Technology department]. I couldn't go anymore with that.

MD: We usually spend five minutes on a question, and if we've done what we can do with it, we transfer it.

Bill Littman: We have some patrons who ask this kind of question all the time. I've been here 37 years, and it doesn't seem unusual anymore. One woman used to call in and ask, "If I was hit by a tractor-trailer truck and dragged 20 miles, would I survive?"

CP: Why did they ask this?

BL: Don't ask me. I don't ask them. The same person also asked, "Am I the actual mother of my cat?"

MD: I had one the other day that called and said, "I really need your help with my child's homework project," and I'm thinking, Oh gosh, where do we start? She said, "Could you spell chateau?" So I looked it up, and we're supposed to quote a source, so I quoted it. And I said, "What's next?" And she said, "Oh, that's all." I had been expecting this long, detailed assignment, so it was kind of amusing the other way.

CP: So is that common, parents or kids calling with homework assignments?

Susan Pluhar: Oh, yes. Basic math, and sometimes not so basic math. The other day someone called and said, "I forgot how to change fractions into decimals."

CP: An adult?

SP: Yes. They're trying to help their kids. They want synonyms and antonyms for words they can't find antonyms for. The other day, [someone asked for] the opposite of a "bee." I said, I don't know. I could find something that was similar, like a wasp. A fly doesn't sting, maybe?

CP: So if you broke down the percentages of people who are calling in, it's kids with homework, and who else?

Herbert Rogers: Occasionally businessmen will call wanting to know something about different companies, or people calling about the qualifications of physicians.

MD: We get a pretty good cross section of the community.

SP: We've gotten a few court reporters who can't quite figure out the word they've recorded. I've gotten that several times.

BL: In 1971, I'd been here a year, and I had in one day, three in a row, I had a woman calling up that her husband had inoperable cancer and she needed to find out that this person on TV who said they could cure it was for real. The best you can do is give them the address and read a few things about them, and that's that. When I hung up the phone, the next thing I got was, "I need a recipe for chocolate cake." When I was through with that, I got a call from a blind man who wanted me to read the synopsis of Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

SP: Spellings-the other day we had "eleemosynary," which we haven't had in a while.

CP: You'll have to spell that for me.

SP: E-l-e-e-m-o-

MD: You're on your own. (laughs)

SP: "Eleemosynary" is a word that means philanthropic. [She retrieves a photocopied list.] These are words we've gotten a lot.

CP: Wow. "Camaraderie," "copacetic"-whatever you just said-

SP: Eleemosynary.

CP: "Ornery," "pejorative," "prerogative," and "triathlon." Those are the big seven?

JW: And "Chautauqua." We used to get that one a lot. We don't get that one as much anymore.

MD: Partly because Google has changed, because you can spell it wrong and it spells it properly.

CP: That's what I wondered about-why, in the age of Google, are people still calling the Telephone Reference Line?

SP: Because they don't know how to ask the question.

CP: And figuring out the question is something a human can do and a computer can't.

MD: We're glad you think that. (laughs)

BL: Back in the '70s, it was always, "Trust your reference books." Whatever it says, no matter what. Somebody called me and wanted to know what Dale Evans' horse was called. The reference book said "Buttercup." I knew differently-it was "Buttermilk." And that was the only thing on the wheel that I could find. So what I did was, I called up the Roy Rogers Museum in Apple Valley, California. I got the woman on the line, and she said, "Buttermilk? Oh yeah, she's right behind me here." So I put the phones together and, "Oh, thank you very much."

CP: So how can someone get information from Telephone Reference?

SP: They call the main line into the number. We start answering the phone at 9 a.m. and go until closing [at 5 or 8 p.m.], and Night Owl picks up after that. We perform a triage. We answer the stuff we can, and the stuff that we really can't we pass on to subject departments. Mostly it's stuff we can handle-"What time do you close?" "What time does this library open?"

CP: Is it a 24-hour service?

SP: The [internet] chat is 24 hours.

MD: That's the Maryland AskUsNow!, and that is accessible from all public libraries in Maryland. Well, actually, not just public anymore-academic and public libraries are part of a consortia. Our staff are on 82 hours a week waiting to receive questions across the state, and then three hours a week are global, so [the questions] could come in from anywhere.

HR: And we also do it in Spanish.

SP: He's our Spanish person.

MD: We don't get many [Spanish-speaking] people yet. I wish we did.

HR: I did last week.

SP: What were they asking?

HR: The person was from Colombia living in this country and she wanted to improve her English, and she was asking for suggestions how she could do that. I mentioned conversation clubs-maybe she could find one in her community.

SP: I like talking to people. Ninety-nine percent of the people who call are really nice and they really like what you're doing. It makes you feel good.

JW: It's never boring. It's always new. I don't think I could have done it this long if it was tedious.

BL: It's the adventure to the whole thing, just getting on the phone and taking whatever's thrown at you. One of the nicest things I had, a woman called up and wanted to know desperately how to learn how to read. "I don't have any money," and all that kind of stuff. Just by chance, I had been at one of the local delicatessens, and they had a notice up there: "Learn how to read for free," and so and so. So I said, "I'll call you back," went down there, got the number, and called her back. Several months later, she comes in and personally thanks me. That was pretty gratifying. You don't often get a personal connection like that. That was worth it.★

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